Putting aside the blinders


People who enjoy video games often get told off by non-players. Why don’t you go outside and play, get some exercise, do something with your life? To them, video games are nothing more than meaningless diversions.

Let’s put aside for the moment that video games have real benefits. Isn’t this just a matter of your frame of reference? We’re important as individuals to ourselves, and our family and friends. But we choose to put on blinders and ignore our larger context, both bigger and smaller.

The human body is made up of about 50-100 trillion cells. We don’t concern ourselves with how each of our cells is progressing (unless a bunch get together, stage a rebellion and take down the larger body with a cancerous outburst). But each of those cells has a job to do. Whether or not it succeeds at its task is important to each cell. And inside each are an average of 300 or so mitochondria, each of which is working away toward an end goal.

All of this doesn’t concern us much. But let’s think about us at the level of human beings in the universe. We inhabit a single planet, only one of a trillion planets in our galaxy. Sounds like a lot, right? But there are more than 200 billion galaxies in the known universe, each containing a similar number of planets to our Milky Way.

Where we stand in relation to our place in the universe is a lot like where a cell stands in relation to us. If there are 50-100 trillion cells in the human body, and if we compare a single cell to a planet, it would take the cells of about 2-4 billion human beings to approximate the number of planets in the known universe.

(To give another sense of scale, there are about 500 billion grains of sand in a beach volleyball court. If each grain were a star in the observable universe, you’d need a beach approximately 333 million kilometers long to contain them, a distance equivalent of the distance to the moon and back 867 times.)

If we really embraced how small we are in the universe, we’d probably just sit on a log all day and watch the moss grow. We choose to selectively ignore the greater scheme of things and devote our attention to practical matters.

But when we play video games, or immerse ourselves in a work of art, we are putting the blinders aside for a moment and transporting our imaginations to a place we couldn’t otherwise go. In this way, we put our primary mission on hold to make a connection with what is bigger than ourselves. Whether you love Pong, Pokemon or World of Warcraft, the impulse to explore the living consciousnesses of game designers as increasingly elaborate worlds etched in silicon is a positive one. Without the desire to explore and play in the ether, we are just cells fulfilling our life missions, gathering resources, subdividing into new generations, and ultimately dying.

I know that I’m never going to lift off in a starship and have coffee with aliens at some magical world light years away. But part of me longs to strive for *some* understanding, some comprehension of what is impenetrable to my teeny mind. (Part of me feels as though it is my duty.) A few of us engage in this project as brilliant geniuses poring over equations and visualizing black holes. The rest of us do what we can.

So when you’re telling your child to put away the games and study, while you are being a good parent in one sense, don’t be too aggressive and disparaging. You never want to snuff out the exploratory impulse, the curiosity born in childhood that endures in some to their dying day, but abandons too many others as they quest for material things. It’s important to earn a living, sure, but we all return to stardust in the relative space of very little time. Let’s stop sneering at how the mind wants to play and enjoy our available vistas while we’re alive. Otherwise, we really are just cells in the human body (or planets in one of billions of galaxies) living out our programming.

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